Stuff today reported what was almost an obituary for Snapper. While it may have come as a surprise to some, it was hardly news. The real story is the one behind the scenes.
Before we look into the bigger issue, lets take a look at the history of Snapper. Infratil subsidiary NZ Bus own and operate bus services in Wellington, Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt under the Go Wellington, Valley Flyer and Runciman’s brands under contract. By 2006 their existing card based ticketing solution was horrible and cash fares were a nightmare to deal with. They needed a solution, and that solution was a contactless smartcard. Infratil also had just the man to launch a product, and with that, Snapper was born. The company was headed up by Charles Monheim. Monheim, who had headed up Tfl (Transport for London’s) Oyster Card ticketing system from 2001 to 2006 had the perfect skillset required to launch a new ticketing system.
Snapper opted for a system based on the Korean T-money platform, with the actual Snapper “card” bring a JCOP (Java Card Open Plaform) application that resides on the card. This platform had been in use in Korea for a number of years and had a number of advantages over other solutions, particularly competing MIFARE based solutions at the time that were dealing with ongoing issues with the encryption on cards being broken rendering the cards open to being compromised.
Snapper hit the ground running in July 2008 – literally. Problems arose with buses that didn’t yet have readers, and the accuracy of billing for some journeys was a nightmare that took quite some time to solve. Over the coming months however the issues were sorted, and as we now look at the product 7 1/2 years on from the launch it’s safe to say it’s fulfilled it’s purpose of delivering a solid contactless solution for Wellington bus customers.
Within months of it’s launch in 2008 it was clear Snapper were out to play hardball. Attempts to convince both Mana and Newlands bus companies to offer the product failed – in part because both took issue with the link between Snapper’s owner Infratil, and NZ Bus. As Snapper would have access to full details of passenger numbers and routes the fear was they would then provide this to NZ Bus who could potentially then tender against Newlands or Mana to operate services. This lead to the GWRC (Greater Wellington Regional Council) also privately having concerns about expansion of Snapper – what would happen if NZ Bus lost the tender for bus services but controlled all the ticketing? What conflicts of interest are there when both share the same parent? They’re all issues that have plagued Snapper since the launch, and to an extent still plague it today.
2008 also marked the announcement by ARTA (Auckland Regional Transport Authority) of it’s plans for a new integrated ticketing solution for Auckland across all buses, trains, and ferries. NZ Bus owned several bus companies in Auckland so took the initiative to launch Snapper into the Auckland market, promising that they could deliver a full solution and have it in place before the 2011 Rugby World Cup at a fraction of the cost of other suppliers. Unfortunately for Snapper several key members of the ARTA had some well known personal grievances with NZ Bus, which in turn meant Snapper was on the out, before it was even in.
It was around this time that the NZTA (New Zealand Transport Agency) stepped into play pledging to help fund integrated ticketing in Auckland, providing they had a say in the solution and day to day running. Their plan was to build a system for Auckland that in time could then be rolled out to other cities in New Zealand achieving economies of scale that would somehow “save” money. Snapper dug their heels in – they had a system in place and were gaining traction with micropayments but the NZTA wanted none of this. A deal was done with French giant Thales to provide the bulk of the backend systems for the ticketing solution and terminals for trains and ferries. Terminals for buses would be available from two vendors, with Snapper pledging their system could be made compatible meaning their terminals would stay.
I don’t need to write about the disaster that evolved over the next year or so. Thales struggled to deliver on time, the AIFS (Auckland Integrated Fare System) which was key to the actual billing of journeys was a joke, and Snapper along with the other bus terminal vendor (who’s name completely escapes me right now) had trouble making their terminals compatible because they had a) nothing to test against because AIFS wasn’t built, and b) because the specifications kept changing. We all now know the outcome – Snapper pulled out of Auckland, Thales took over all bus terminals, and in 2012 HOP was launched with the cost blowing out to somewhere in the vicinity of $100 million. Since that day it’s either been plagued by problems or the best solution to ever hit the market - depending solely on the side of the fence you want to sit on. Needless to say both parties believed in some very different things – Thales, NZTA and ARTA were very much about building closed, proprietary systems. Snapper were all about building open systems. It really is no wonder heads clashed with such differing views.
The involvement of the NZTA in Auckland was critical. Their involvement resulted in the creation of NITIS (national integrated ticketing interoperability standard) along with the concept of a centralised system for overall management, but with individual clearing houses for each city or town that wanted to jump onboard. This clearing house concept is quite important here – unless fundamental changes are made to the clearing house model you will not be able to use an Auckland issued HOP card in any other region, or use (say) a Wellington HOP card in Auckland. The NZTA also don’t want their solution used for anything but public transport. Both approaches differ significantly to what Snapper believed in, with Snapper pushing it’s use in taxis and parking along with micropayments.
While it wasn’t clear to many at the time, the future for Snapper became a little less uncertain after HOP went live. With the NZTA committing to funding integrated ticketing outside Auckland on the condition integrated ticketing solutions were fully compliant with the NITIS specifications (something Snapper wasn’t) . Here in Wellington our slightly backwards GWRC still saw no need for integrated ticketing across all buses and trains and saw it as a solution looking for a problem, despite the fact the advantages of integrated ticketing across buses and trains are just … logical.
Move on to 2015 and integrated ticketing is finally on the cards at GWRC, with plans to have a solution in place towards the end of the decade. GWRC really only have one option for a solution, and that’s piggybacking on top of HOP. Deploying Snapper across the rest of the trains and buses in Wellington would cost a fraction of the cost of jumping onboard NZTA’s solution, and no doubt start raising all sorts of questions all over again about why HOP cost so much money not just on a solution, but a backwards solution.
10 years ago the concept of a piece of plastic to pay for public transport was a great one. It replaced cash and was reloadable. As we enter an era of smart devices and contactless payments in the form of Visa’s Paywave, Mastercard’s Paypass, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay the game has changed. Carrying around another piece of plastic to pay for a public transport journey feels backwards. Oyster card usage in London has plummeted this year with the adoption of Paywave, Paypass and Apple Pay to pay for all public transport journeys. Passengers no longer need to worry about carrying around an extra card and topping it up, and for tourists it makes using public transport incredibly simple.
The sad aspect of such advances is that the NZTA don’t believe in such things. Their concept of a closed model means HOP users are unlikely to see solutions such as this anytime soon. It’s highly likely you’ll see a mobile phone app but that’s hardly groundbreaking stuff – Snapper did that 3 years ago with their touch2pay solution which was the first of it’s kind in the world. Simply tagging your smartwatch against the reader to tag on and tag off may be the way of the future in some countries, but New Zealand won’t be one.
All of this poses one big question. With all of the talent we have in New Zealand, how did we end up with the NZTA spending $100 million to build a solution based on French technology that doesn’t fully meet the needs of public transport users? The hardware isn’t the complex part, it’s the software that is. The clearing house and interchange model used by HOP is very inefficient, and issues such as online top-ups taking 3 days show the downsides of the current solutions.
Is it time to for Wellington to simply tell the NZTA were to stick HOP and build our own open standards solution for public transport ticketing?
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